Trail Magic

When I first started looking into “thru-hiking” I discovered something called Trail Angels.  Along the Appalachian Trail, the granddaddy of our thru-hiking trails, there are these amazing people that apparently get their kicks by showing up at random trail/road intersections and hand out refreshments.  Some just leave a cooler of water, others go way overboard and set up kitchens . . . God bless those people.

IMGP0250This phenomena apparently happens so much along the AT that it’s becoming a part of the expectations for some hikers.  If anything on the internet is true, then some of the legends of hikers with entitlement-syndrome must be as well.  I suspect that it’s only a few bad apples that are creating the drama.  The rest of the stories of surprised and grateful hikers strikes me as the norm.

Either way, the Arizona Trail network of Trail Angels is nowhere as developed as the hordes on the AT.  But they’re there.  The most common act of love these angels do is to stash water at various intersections.  If you visit the Arizona Trail site and check out the maps, there are literally hundreds of places where the trail crosses a road.  In some cases, major roads.  There are even a few places that the AZTA has installed water cache boxes.  These are animal proof, metal boxes and dedicated angels stash gallon water jugs.

I think the reason this is the most popular type of angel support is because the AZT is known as “800 miles of water stress”.  Luckily I have access to a water report that’s updated every couple of weeks or so.  It tells me where the most common water sources are and their relative reliability.  Regardless, the water isn’t abundant.  Some hikers have reported carrying 6-9 liters because water sources are so far apart.  Each liter weights 2.2lbs, not counting the vessel.  That means 13-20 pounds just in water weight.

Anyway, yeah . . .so these water caches are pretty damned appreciated.

Maybe if you happen to be playing outside, near the Arizona Trail, you’ll take it upon yourself to stash a couple gallons of water where hikers & riders might find them.  If you do, then make sure to use those typical gallons you can buy from a supermarket; the ones that look like milk-jugs.  The reason is because they’re collapsible and light, making them easier to haul out.  Also, if you see empties, please haul them out, especially if you are in a car or on a bike.  Especially.

If you’re in-state and feel like camping along the trail to surprise and delight hikers then please take photos – I’d love to see images of AZT Love!

One Month Left

I have exactly one month left before I put sole to dirt.  On September 19th I’ll be waving goodbye to my friend, Chuck and heading south. I’ll be attempting my very first thru-hike of any trail.  Luckily I happen to live in the state where the trail exists, no doubt the logistics of an out of state hike is more daunting as well.

For the last 5 months I’ve had my “kit” on a folding table next to my desk.  When I’m going ADHD at work I turn around and look at the kit – I mentally scrutinizing every piece.  “Can I find something lighter, or one that has multiple uses?”  “Do I really NEED that?” How much can one really leave behind before you start compromising your preparedness?  There’s a saying – “there is no such thing as bad weather; only bad decisions and/or gear”.  So I’m looking at every single piece and trying to pare it down to the perfect balance of need vs. want.  Weight equals pain and luxury.

So I’ve got my kit dialed in; at least I think I do; here’s a video I shot in one take on the first try.  I’m a bit surprised that I mostly made sense.

I’ve got some pretty great gear and an amazing wife that’s willing to finish stuffing priority mailing boxes & sending them to places as I go along.  I’ll have an InReach so I’ll even be able to let her know if I need any additional stuff or gear replacements.  I truly do have it easy, really.  If Lewis and Clark can discover Oregon without modern gear, then I’m pretty sure I can stumble to Mexico with my cool gadgets.

My favorite part of this whole trip, right now, is that I’m actually taking 60 days off, at a very inappropriate time in my life.  I have so much shit to do right now.  I know, I know – we ALL, ALWAYS have tons of shit to do.  But my shit is also seasonal – the fall is pretty damned important.  It’s when our busy season starts ramping up; in fact there are some major events that are already booked, that will require human effort.  I’m going anyway.

I’m glad I’m a Gemini; I get to watch one twin say “%$#@!-it, I’m going outside to play”, and the other twin shake his head, condescendingly, and say – “but you have responsibilities”.  Usually, unfortunately almost exclusively, my sensible twin wins.  This time – not so much.

I’m on board with the sentiment that memories are the greatest investments of all time.

Only the first half

Over my right shoulder, just behind me is a table with my “kit” spread out.  That way I get to think about the relative need of every piece of gear, as a whole, over a long period of time.  I have a philosophy on what gear goes into a backpack.  This reasoning applies to backpacking as well as thru-hiking.

Except for medical supplies, if a piece of gear doesn’t come out of your pack and get used every day, it’s probably not worth carrying.  Also, if a piece of gear doesn’t have more than one use then you need to consider alternatives.  Plan well, but don’t overthink it.

This is an “average” philosophy.  By that, I mean I apply this philosophy differently based on the trip.  For example, T.I.T.S. (Thanksgiving In The Superstitions) requires a whole different set of tools than a trip across the Tonto Plateau in Grand Canyon.  I apply the average of the philosophy as an “overlay” to the trip, so to speak.  However, for this upcoming AZT hike I’m also adding two other layers of consideration.  The first scrutiny can be explained in a simple equation: weight=pain=luxury.  The second analysis is of a “durability/ease-of-resupply” style, will it last the entire time and if not, how easy can I replace that item.

I have just about one of every single piece of gear in back up.  It might not be the exact same make and model, but the capacity is the same.  For example, if my MSR Micro-Rocket dies then I’ve got the most ubiquitous stove on the planet – the MSR Whisperlite.  I’m also pretty good at starting fires, so there’s that.

Anyway, the underlying, long-story, over described point is that I’m planning the $#!T out this trip . . . but only the first “half”.  I’ve hiked many of the sections north of Oracle.  I haven’t hiked a single segment south.  I’m roughly familiar with the topography due to some extensive scouring of the Arizona Trail Association website but I’ve not hiked a single inch of the trail, yet.

You see, I figure that since I’m hiking south-bound, by the time I get to Oracle I’ll have my shit together.  I’ll have shaken down my gear, streamlined my operations, and gotten my “hiker legs”.  I’ll have just enjoyed the company of friends and amazing food in the middle of the wilderness (T.I.T.S.).  The rest of the way I can make it up as I go, for the most part.  If, for some reason, I am forced to abandon my hike I won’t need to know the trail for this go-around.

Either way, I don’t think I’m going to worry about the second half.  Except for mail drops, water caches, hotel reservations, resupply logistics, “coyotes”, etc.  For that, there’s MasterCard.


Test #2 Results

Emi and MeSo, I’m back from my test run.  It didn’t go as planned – at all.  In fact, it was a rookie mistake that made the difference.

As you might recall the plan was to hike from Marshall Lake, which is just southeast of Flagstaff, around Mount Elden and into town.  A big counter-clockwise loop, if you will.  I was trying to familiarize myself with both routes around Flagstaff.  There’s a bypass and a resupply route.  Which trail you take depends on how you want to deal with the city.  Some people will want to take full advantage while others will probably just want some water and snacks.

Anyway, my plan came to a crashing halt because I made an assumption and didn’t test it out before . . .well, testing it out.  You see, there’s a pretty sizable difference between “backpacking” and “thru-hiking”.  “Of course” you might say?  Well, I said the same thing, but the reality is much starker than the thought.  I’ll compare it to the difference between mountain biking and road cycling.  Sure, both are on bikes but the actual “how to do this shit” details aren’t even remotely related.  Except for crashing – that always sucks.

So, I showed you my gear list in the last post.  For the most part that worked our perfectly.  I’m totally excited about the quilt – it saves me about 2 pounds, lots of pack volume and is toasty & comfy.  I’ll need to make sure to have a warm hat though because it’s JUST big enough for my body. I’m also getting used to my front-loading tent, the MSR Nook.  All of my previous tents were side-loading and I’m pretty sure I still prefer that, but this time the Nook did pretty well.  I don’t use the tent though; just the rain-fly and footprint.

The problems didn’t arise from my new kit.  It came about because of my footwear.  I was testing out some trail shoes rather than my standard leather boots.  For the most part, thru-hikers prefer trail shoes of some sort rather than “big, clunky boots”.  I’ve always asserted that in order to maintain happy feet you need a sturdy foot-bed to walk on.  Presumably the lighter load of a “thru-hiker” affords one the ability to select a less formidable option.  So, instead of my Vasque clod-stompers I opted for Salomon XA Pro3D trail-running shoes.  I absolutely love these shoes and have been using them on day-hikes for years.

Side note: I have some foot challenges and was prescribed some correctional inserts.

To make a long story less long the shoes, plus the inserts and my medium-weight wool socks created a way-too-tight result.  I knew it immediately when I put on my shoes (with this combination) at the trailhead FOR THE FIRST TIME!!. <<<That’s the rookie mistake I was referring to in my sentence #1 above.

You just looked up there, didn’t you?

Nevertheless, I hoped that the shoes would stretch a bit on the hike.  As fate would have it we only hiked about 2.3 miles that first day because we were running a bit late and we really just wanted to get in a few miles and camp.  So, the foot issue didn’t present itself until the next day.  We reached our objective, 10.4 miles away, by 12:30 and decided we’d had enough.  When I took my shoes off I discovered blisters in places I’d never seen.


Luckily I had phone reception and was able to call Tina, who was camping and waiting to meet us in Flagstaff upon completion.  Instead I asked her to pick us up at one of the next two trail/road junctions.  I decided to take the inserts out and see if that helped.  It did, but an insertless shoe also sucks, just in a different way.  I hobbled into the parking lot of the Conoco at the 89, 12.6 miles later, and basically told her that the hike was over.

We weren’t in a hurry to return to the oppressive Phoenix heat, especially since the campground was just around the corner and had a good mobile signal.  We spent the next few days lounging and hiking.

The final results include a hell of a reminder to be diligent in testing out gear before testing out gear . . .so I’m not testing gear out on the trail this fall.

Oh, and I discovered that Emi loves to ride on top of my backpack.

Test Run #2

After my run at the Mazatzal segments I realized that I was going to need another trip or two to really refine my gear list.  Also, I might as well kill two birds with one stone – I’ll be scouting the segments around Flagstaff.

The AZT goes around Flagstaff two ways – the “re-supply” route and the “by-pass” route.  Essentially, leaving from Shultz Pass trailhead your options are to head east, around Little & Elden Peaks and crossing I-40 in east Flag.  There are some rudimentary services within walking distance, and you might even be able to call an Uber or hitch a ride into town if you wanted to.  The other trail heads west around the peaks, eventually dropping into Buffalo Park Trailhead.  From there you can wander into town and live it up!

They both circle around the Elden family of peaks to finally re-connect south of Flagstaff at Marshall Lake.  A few years ago I scouted some segments heading south from there, but oddly enough I hiked about 9 miles north from Marshall Lake on accident.  A good friend of mine was dropping me off; we’d camped a few miles from the trailhead the night before.  Anyway, I woke up super early, roused Cameron and we drove to the “lake”, the entire time the majestic San Francisco Peaks inviting me.  When we arrived  we must have gotten turned around because instead of heading south, I walked toward the peaks.

I was enjoying a beautiful hike, the entire time I was enjoying the views.  It wasn’t until about Fisher Point that I’d realized my mistake and had to hike back.  I’d blown most of the day, drank most of my water and expended a majority of my energy getting nowhere.  It is what it is.

This fall I’ll be taking the resupply route through Flagstaff.  I don’t think any other gateway town has what Flagstaff can offer with its shopping, hotels, dining and craft beer options.  I’ll also be taking a zero day here . . . because of the shopping, hotels, dining and craft beer.  I’m sure there will be other notable outposts of humanity that I’ll talk about after my trip, but for now Flagstaff is my most anticipated.

Anyway, back to the gear.  Here’s a picture of the stuff I’m taking on this test-run.  Some items may, or may not make it to my eventual kit.Gear for Around the Peaks Hike June 16

Gear List

  • Tent: MSR Nook, 2-person.  I’m only bringing the rain-fly and footprint; leaving behind the tent body.
  • Sleeping Bag:  Thermarest Corus HD Quilt
  • Sleeping Pad*:  Thermarest Neo-Air XTherm Long
  • Cook Kit:
    • MSR Micro-rocket stove
    • MSR Titanium Kettle
    • MSR Fuel canister
    • Lexan spoon (it shows the fork and the spoon, but I’m only bringing the spoon)
    • Oragami bowl
  • Water Kit
    • 2 x Platypus 2L collapsible bottles
    • 1 x widemouth plastic bottle
    • 1 x 100oz. Camelback Unbottle (I might switch this out for a bladder-only setup).
    • Steripen Traveler**
  • Solar Charging Kit
    • Phone cord
    • AA batteries (for the Steripen)
    • Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus, with the AAA battery insert.  The AAA batteries are for my headlamp
    • Goal Zero Nomad 7
  • Essentials
    • Compass (I had a discussion with some tool recently about the merits of having a compass).
    • Black Diamond Headlamp
    • 20′ x 2mm accessory cord
    • DeLorme InReach (I won’t actually be taking it on this trip, but I will for the thru-hike).
    • First Aid Kit
    • Toiletries
    • Trekking Poles
  • Backpack (the heaviest thing in my kit): Gregory Whitney 95L.
  • I’m also bringing a dry-bag for clothing, a trash-compactor bag for my sleeping quilt, and a pack cover to go over the entire thing.  Nothing’s getting wet!

*You’ll notice a closed-cell Ridgerest.  I carry this in addition to my inflatable mattress; it helps smooth out the bad rocks, acts as a seat, I can take afternoon naps without too much hassle and it’s great for kneeling down.

**I’ve used a Steripen before; I had the opportunity to enjoy water from an occupied cattle tank thanks to one.  My hesitation about a Steripen is that, like many other water purifiers/filters it’s fallible.  I don’t remember a time when SOMETHING didn’t go wrong with my water tool – except with the Steripen.  We’ll see.

I was recently told that some friends are rafting down the Colorado River in March of next year; I might be able to go.  So, needless to say I have a bit of logistical challenges coming my way in the next year . . .


The “why”

When I tell people that I want to hike the entire length of the Arizona Trail they invariably ask “why”.  They’re never satisfied with my usual response: “because I want to”.  In fact, that response is rather anti-climactic.  Why would anyone want to walk, constantly, for 60+ days straight?

As I sit here contemplating my reasoning I’m finding it difficult to put my thoughts into words.  I’ve wanted to thru-hike this trail even before I discovered “thru-hiking” was a thing but my initial intentions are far different than they are today.  Originally I wanted to set a speed record; now, I just want to finish.  I’m not interested in showing off or proving anything to anyone (other than to myself).

On the surface the challenge is the same.  I have to overcome myriad physical and mental obstacles, some that repeat themselves often, in order to successfully complete this hike.  But instead of trying to push myself to the limit to finish faster than anyone else ever has, I’ll be pushing myself to the limit just to finish, period.  And when you get down to the nitty-gritty of the task, this is going to hurt – a lot!

When you ask a Marine if they liked boot camp there’s always a trepidation in their answer.  The typical response is “I’d do it over, but I wouldn’t do it again”.  The reason is that boot camp is comprised of two activities – suffering and sleeping.  Kinda’ sounds like thru-hiking to some extent.

So what does all of this mean and why would I want to do something that seems to just be a bunch of suffering?  The answer is simple – I won’t be suffering.  I’ll be walking through beautiful country, at my own pace, with no other soul to serve.  I won’t have to satisfy anyone else’s needs, except maybe for my dog if I bring one.  I’ll bet to spend so much time in the back country that my rhythms will start to match the earth’s.  I’ll only have one to focus on – safe forward movement.

Don’t get me wrong – my life doesn’t suck.  On the contrary, I tend to consider myself rather lucky.  What I mean is that I’m not running from, or escaping, anything . . . I’m running toward something.  Ideally I’ll discover inner peace and enlightenment; failing that I’ll just have a grand time walking across Arizona, sole to soul.

The Plan, thus far.

As I sit here about to write this blog, I already know that this is post in vain.  You see, I’m about to outline my proposed itinerary.  There are some key events that take place while I’ll be on the hike and I’m curious about where I’ll be during them.  The two primary dates I’m worried about are T.I.T.S. and Thanksgiving.

For those of you who don’t know, T.I.T.S. is an annual pilgrimage into the Superstition mountains to celebrate Thanksgiving.  It happens about 2 weeks before the actual holiday.  This is our 12th annual event; it’s a pot-luck event where everyone hauls a full thanksgiving feast into the woods.  In years past we’ve roasted full turkeys, pheasants and hams over the fire.  One year we even pit-roasted a turkey.  I’m hoping to be able to roll through during my hike and use the event as a re-supply opportunity.

The real Thanksgiving is another date that I’ll be watching – I want to spend it with Tina, ideally in a private, luxury setting.  Depending on my pace there are a few options out there but timing the reservations is going to require some effort and flexibility.  I’m really not worried about IF it’ll work out; I’m curious HOW it’s going to play out.  Stay tuned for that one.

Anyway, without further ado, here is my tentative itinerary:

On Saturday, September 24th we’ll depart Phoenix and head to the Utah border.  Along the way we’ll be caching water in a few of the known water-less stretches.  We’ll make camp somewhere convenient and complete our travel to the border trailhead the next day.  On Monday, September 26th I’ll take my first steps south as I attempt to thru-hike the 800 mile Arizona Trail.

I am expecting that this northern Kaibab plateau segment will take me about 6 days; along the trail I will be stopping at Jacob Lake for a meal, as well as connecting with Tina at our B&T camp close to the entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park.  Once I arrive at the north rim I’ll have to apply for a permit.  I want to spend my first zero day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon at Bright Angel Campground and hopefully a dinner at Phantom Ranch.  On day 9 I’ll hike out via the South Kaibab trail and on to Tusayan for my first stay in a hotel and my first mail drop resupply, 16.3 miles later.

Leaving Tusayan I’ll make my way over the most notorious water-stressful segment (as if the rest of the trail isn’t).  This is the segment that Tina and I will have stashed water on our way up.  I’ll pass by the fire-watch tower at Grandview, head south into pristine forest past Russel Tank, the ruins of the Moqui Stage Stop, and over the ranges of the historic CO Bar ranch.  Then I’ll start my long, but steep, climb to some remote range land and eventually into Flagstaff.

I plan on taking the re-supply route into town; I also plan on taking another zero day.  Depending on how I feel, I might even take TWO zero days!  I love Flagstaff and this is the biggest town the trail actually goes through.  I’ll re-supply, drink beer, clean myself and gear, drink beer, eat great food and enjoy the local craft breweries.  Get my point.  Hopefully I can convince Tina (and friends . . .hint, hint) to come up and visit.  I promise I’ll shower before you see me.

After Flagstaff it’s a nice mellow, but long push to the edge of the Mogollon Rim.  I’m expecting to be able to average about 15 miles a day for the next 8 days as I push past Mormon Lake and on to Pine.  I am really looking forward to Pine as well.  It’s the home of THAT Brewery and Sidewinders.  I’ll be doing a “store-based” resupply here and staying in the campground.  I’ll be pushing on the next day with my target being the LF Ranch.  This is a working cattle ranch in the Mazatzal Mountains.  They have a bunk-house and serve a great dinner.  I’ll also be counting on them for a mail-drop as well.  Again, depending on how I feel and my pace, I might be taking a layover day here.

The next 113 miles will take me past the rest of the rugged (as $#%@!) Mazatzals, under the shadow of Four Peaks, to the marina at Roosevelt Lake (for another mail drop) and on to Reavis Ranch – the site of this year’s T.I.T.S.  I am planning on taking three zero days at the ranch.  This is also where I’m factoring in some flex-time.  If I am behind schedule then this gap will increase my odds of being on time for that Saturday’s festivities.  That Sunday I’ll hike out with everyone and resupply at the trailhead; I’m sure someone will volunteer to drive a box of stuff to me.

The trail immediately drops down into the desert and ribbons to the Picket Post trailhead at Superior.  I won’t be staying or stopping in Superior; instead I’ll have a long, 7 day push to get to Oracle.  I’ve done some of this route and it’s actually a really nice segment.  There are some water caches along the way so hopefully they’ll be stocked when I go through.  Or, maybe I can head out a couple days prior to my departure to set a few bottles in a few key locations . . . we’ll see.

I am planning on staying overnight in Oracle.  I’m not sure where, but it’s a neat town and I am looking forward to checking it out.  I won’t be taking a layover day though.  I’ll head out the next day and get as far as I can.  Along the way I’ll pass very close to Tucson.  I’m hoping to hitch a ride or call an Uber to get me into town for my second to last layover/resupply day.  Back on the trail I’ll hike according to the water schedule, eventually (possibly) staying at Colossal Cave or at the ranch with Tina.  This is where I expect to be during Thanksgiving.  I’m not sure what will actually transpire but I’m sure I’ll update you as events unfold.  No doubt you’ll be pinned to the blog waiting to read all about it.

The last week will take me past Patagonia and on to the border.  If I haven’t worn out my welcome from Tina she’ll come get me and we’ll make the long drive back to the real world, on or about December 1st.

Well, that’s my best laid plan . . . we’ll see how it goes.